MIT Media Lab Director Wants to Grow US Entrepreneurs
CREDIT: Joichi Ito/MIT Media Lab
Some college dropouts make it big as entrepreneurs or business investors, but few get asked to fill a prestigious academic position such as director of MIT's Media Lab. The recent exception is Joichi Ito, a 44-year-old tech entrepreneur and advocate for Internet freedom, who stepped up starting this year to guide the Media Lab's pursuit of technologies capable of transforming daily life.
MIT's choice looks less surprising when considering Ito's resume. The Japanese-born, American-educated entrepreneur started and stopped his education at two U.S. universities before going on to found Japan's first commercial Internet service provider and first commercial search engine. He invested early on in companies such as Twitter, Kickstarter and Flickr and is currently a general partner at the Neoteny Labs Startup 1 investment fund.
But it's not all just about business. Ito also promotes Internet privacy and Internet freedom as board chair of Creative Commons a nonprofit encouraging legal sharing and reuse and sits on the board of directors for the Mozilla Foundation.
Ito took time out of his travels in Dubai to talk with InnovationNewsDaily about his approach to reshaping U.S. innovation and entrepreneurship. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)
InnovationNewsDaily: You're in a better position than most to talk about education and entrepreneurship. How can U.S. schools better cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit?
Joichi Ito: Not everybody in the world should be an entrepreneur. I think there's an entrepreneurial personality which is figuring it out as you go along. There's also a lifelong learning. "Waterfall software development" is that you spec it, you build it and you complete it. Being agile means every week you build it, you iterate on it; every day your job is different. It's driven by a trajectory rather than a master plan. It's not necessarily your plan, but it's a plan.
I think some people work well in structured environments and some work well in unstructured environments. But I do have a bias. In today's world, people who work well in unstructured environments will do well dealing with chaos, unpredictability and speed. I think you still have structure in some cases, such as in building a railroad station. But I think more of society is becoming productive in agile spaces.
If you look at the people who participated in the founding of [new tech] companies, I think you'll see that a lot of people tend to be interest-driven learners. Thinking of how to support those types of people even for people who aren't completely that way providing tools to figure out how to access networks, learn as you need to, rather than stock it in your head.
Right now, most schools assess you for knowledge and the ability to do things on your own. It's difficult to assess the ability to collaborate with other people.
InnovationNewsDaily: Could the U.S. reform education so that it can better encourage collaborative learning?
Ito: I think it's hard to reform education, so I think a lot of this will happen outside the traditional educational framework. It will be interesting to see how the nature of assessments evolves. I think for traditional jobs you'll still need accreditation and degrees.
But for most of the deals I invest in, I invest in because of referrals. Those come because you convince a network of people that you're good at certain things. Your social graph is a balance of the way you perform. In a way, that graph is a network assessment of things that are hard to measure. "He's a solid guy, I trust him completely" is an assessment someone might give me. If five people give that assessment, I'm more likely to trust the person.
Investing relationships and being seen as a reliable person it is actually kind of tangible; look at LinkedIn recommendations. You wouldn't necessarily get that in a school setting. You might get that in extracurricular activities, but that's a kind of informal peer review.
If someone comes looking to work for me, I quickly try to figure out what communities they're part of and how they're viewed in those communities. That's the power of pull-and-network fitness measurement.
InnovationNewsDaily: Do you have advice for people who are debating between attending college and launching their own startup?
Ito: Dropping out of college is fine for a small number of men who live in certain communities. If you look at college-dropout CEOs, almost all of them are American men. Minorities and women tend to need degrees to get in the door. I was lucky, but I would have had an easier time with a degree. I don't think it's good advice to drop out of school. In some cases, if you have the right personality, it makes sense, but for most people it doesn't.
I think there's a lot of advice you can give students as to what they should do in university. While the degree may be interesting and important, what's really important is investing in you and learning. A lot of kids focus on getting the degree and getting out, but should focus on getting to conferences and learning a lot. Even if you don't graduate, it should have been worth it.
The reason I wasn't good at formal education is that I passively sat there and did what was expected of me. I didn't manage my own learning; it was being managed for me. Not everyone has the entrepreneurial bug, but you do need to get into things where you're trying things out and failing and learning boundaries a lot sooner than before you graduate. You don't want to wait until you're 35 or 40 [years old] before you start something, because you get risk-averse as you get older.
A lot of business school is the study of business, but it's not business. Once you get experience, it helps because it creates an experiential framework to overlay knowledge. If you don't have that experience, you may create weird frameworks and patterns that you may need to unlearn. I think MBAs and consulting both create certain ways of thinking about business that may be fine when the company gets larger, but may get in the way when you're trying to do a startup.
InnovationNewsDaily: You've said you want to spread the MIT Media Lab's culture of innovation. What's your vision for the path ahead?
Ito: I think the Media Lab can be the model of the future of learning. It can make a huge impact on how people think about learning, and how people think of innovation and creativity. I think Silicon Valley made a huge impact on how people think about innovation, but I think the MIT Media Lab has the potential to do the same from a different angle in different fields. It's about working from the bottom up; for example, the cost of software went down so much that it decentralized innovation. The Media Lab has the ability to do that.
The MIT Media Lab is [also] like a mentor-apprentice model. The teachers act as mentors, and students take on apprenticeships. It's not a new thing; mentors and apprenticeships have been around, but the Victorian school broke that model with set times [for learning]. There may be a lot to learn from craftsmen and apprenticeships.